Last week the world marked the 400th anniversary of the death of the greatest writer in the English language and one of the three or four most significant artists the human race has produced. William Shakespeare simply contains so much. In the manner of Dante, Homer, Michelangelo, James Joyce, and Aquinas, he seems to encompass the whole: every texture of feeling, every nuance of thought, the tragedy of sin, the most exquisite longings of the soul, the most confounding confusions, heaven, hell, and everything in between.
It is, of course, this very capaciousness that has made possible such a variety of readings of his work. Kenneth Clark, relying perhaps on the darkest of Macbeth’s soliloquies—“Life’s but a walking shadow/ a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing”—read Shakespeare as the harbinger of post-religious nihilism; Freud saw, especially in “Hamlet,” a foreshadowing of his psychological theories; Rene Girard appreciated “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Merchant of Venice,” and “Othello” as anticipations of his own musings on mimetic desire and the scapegoating mechanism. Some feminists love Shakespeare and others can’t stand him; he has been portrayed as the ultimate defender of the status quo and as an explicit revolutionary; there are Catholic and Protestant and even atheist construals of the Bard. My former colleague, the late, great Fr. Edward Oakes, an ardent Bardophile, always argued that Shakespeare himself remains permanently elusive, smiling like the Cheshire cat behind the vividness of his characters and the energy of his dramaturgy.
Though I have been impressed by much of the recent scholarship purporting to show that Shakespeare was in fact a canny and clandestine Catholic, prudently making his way through the ideological minefields of Elizabethan England, I don’t want to pursue that analysis here. Mindful that the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (2016) almost exactly coincides with the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation (2017), I want to make a related though simpler claim, namely, that, whatever his personal religious commitments, the great poet, throughout his work, was indeed mourning the fading of an integrated Catholic milieu.
I might suggest we begin with the beloved sonnet number 73, in which Shakespeare remarks the passing of his own life: “That time of year thou mayest in me behold/ when yellow leaves or none or few, do hang/ Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,/ Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” He has come to the autumn of his years, the last stage before the lifelessness of winter. Shifting metaphors, he speaks of a flame dying down: “In me thou seest the glowing of such fire/ That on the ashes of his youth doth lie/ As the death bed whereon it must expire.” But it is not simply his own existence that he sees passing away, and the clue is found in that lyrical reference to “bare ruined choirs.” Those are indeed the naked branches from which the summer birds have long fled, but they are also the choir stalls of the monasteries, wrecked by Henry VIII’s enthusiasm for reformation and need for quick financing. The sweet-singing monks, chased away and in hiding, are representative of a Catholic culture, marked by beauty and majestic liturgy, that was, by Shakespeare’s time, fast evanescing.
In many of his greatest plays, Shakespeare shows the giving-way of an old order through the efforts of puritanical, even fanatic, revolutionaries. In “Julius Caesar,” the grand old man is done to death by a band of conspirators who see themselves as the agents of liberation: “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!” they shout as they stand around Caesar’s body, and as they bathe in Caesar’s blood, they exult: “How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over, in states unborn and accents yet unknown!” That Shakespeare is unsympathetic with the murderers becomes clear in his crafting of Antony’s oration and also in his contrivance of the haunting of Brutus and Cassius by Caesar’s ghost. But it is equally clear that Caesar is not without guilt. His physical deafness is evocative of a psychological and spiritual deafness to the needs of his people and the intensity of the opposition party, and his egoism and self-satisfaction are on almost constant display. Just one example among many: “I could well be moved if I were as you. If I could pray to move, prayers would move me. But I am constant as the Northern Star.” If the conspirators symbolize the reformers, then might Caesar represent a Catholic establishment that was majestic indeed, but also smug and insensitive to the need for change? As Owen Chadwick, the great historian of the Reformation, put it: “Anyone who mattered at the beginning of the sixteenth century, thought that the Church stood in need of reform.” This included Erasmus as well as the saintly and fiercely Catholic Thomas More. Was Shakespeare subtly suggesting that the very violence of the Reformation was, to a degree, the product of a certain deafness and pride on the part of the Catholic leadership?
We find something very similar in the late play “Antony and Cleopatra.” Shakespeare portrays the famous lovers as sensuous, funny, volatile, romantic, larger than life, and deeply dysfunctional. And their great opponent, Caesar Augustus, who eventually overwhelms them, is depicted as stark, rational, unbending, legalistic, and humorless. To be sure, Antony and Cleopatra are hardly saints, and to a degree they gave rise to Augustus’s opposition. But Shakespeare rather obviously mourns their passing and that of the entire world they represent. Are star-crossed Antony and Cleopatra the doomed Catholic culture that is fading away under the pressure from an efficient, rationalistic Protestant movement?
And might the tension between the two worlds be best summed up in Shakespeare’s greatest and most fully-imagined character? Prince Hamlet is identified as a student in Luther’s University of Wittenberg and yet he confronts the ghost of his father visiting him from Purgatory, a place explicitly denied by Protestant theology! Are the very madness and suicidal depression of Hamlet not the symbolic expressions of the deep psychological anxiety produced by the clash between two ways of life, one fading and the other only beginning to emerge? And is the ghost of Hamlet’s father perhaps the spirit of the old Catholicism still haunting the minds of Protestant Englishmen?
I don’t intend this article to be an exercise in Catholic triumphalism. As I’ve suggested, Shakespeare finds plenty to criticize on both sides of the Reformation divide. But I wonder whether everyone can agree that Shakespeare was indeed mourning the loss of something that came apart in the sixteenth century—something beautiful and something worth putting back together.